Isabelle Johnson ’17 is from Presque Isle in northern Wisconsin. She is going to the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She played hockey while she was at Culver. You would think temperatures in the 40s wouldn’t bother her as she posed for photos with her friends.
“Excuse me,” she said as she shivered. “I’m freezing.”
It is easy to understand after you listen to her talk about her eight-month experience in Senegal as a Global Citizen Year fellow. GCY is a non-profit organization that recruits and trains high school seniors to participate in an immersion-based bridge year before starting college.
Johnson is the latest of several Culver Girls Academy students to participate in the program. She served as an English instructor in a small school and lived with a family in rural Senegal. “I asked to be put in the middle of nowhere,” she said. It was 110 degrees the day she arrived.
Johnson arrived back in the United States two weeks ago. She returned to Culver Academies to share her experiences before the May 10 application deadline for 2018-19 passes. She told the girls that she didn’t feel ready for college last spring. Now, though, “I’m happy with the track I’m on.”
The GCY program costs $32,500, but Johnson said she received a GCY scholarship that made it possible for her to go. Nearly 80 percent of the fellows receive a scholarship, she said, and 30 percent receive full rides. GCY is also considering the establishment of an exclusive scholarship for Culver students because of the success they have experienced since Madeleine Balchan ’10 went to Senegal.
Johnson chose Senegal because she wanted to learn French, which is the official language, but now she also is conversant in Wolof (spoken by most people in Senegal) and Sereer (a dialect spoken in her village).
Many of the hurdles she had to cross were internal, Johnson admitted. Fresh off Culver’s structured environment and focus on finishing a task then moving on to a new one, it took her “two to three months” to slow down and embrace the fluidity of the Senegalese culture. While GCY provides mindfulness and self-care training to prepare you, it still took some time, she said.
Technology depends on where you are located, Johnson said. GCY has programs in Senegal, Ecuador, Brazil, and India. The Internet was nonexistent in her village, but she did have a cell phone supplied by GCY she could use when needed. She used her personal cell phone to call her parents when she had service. She filed her college application by using the Internet at her team leader’s apartment.
Approximately 20 GCY fellows were spread throughout Senegal. The entire group met for periodic training and day trips. Individuals also used their free time to travel together or just hang out in smaller groups. The only travel restrictions were they could not leave Senegal, Johnson said. She traveled by bus, which took some time to understand. She felt safe the entire time she was there. Her biggest concern was the pickpockets in Dakar.
Senegal is 94 percent Muslim. Johnson found Islam to be a very peaceful and accepting religion. But there are dress codes to follow because of the culture, she added, mostly with covering women’s legs. Because of that, she did buy some new clothes. She also learned to sew since tailoring is a major vocation in the country. “I learned to make pants and shirts,” she said. “I came back with a whole other suitcase of new clothes.”
The biggest thing she missed while living in Senegal “was a sink. Sinks are my new favorite thing,” she laughed. What she misses the most since she has been back is the Senegalese way of greeting people, whether you are friends or just meeting for the first time.
“How you greet someone is a big part of their way of life,” Johnson explained. “The greetings can take a long time and they are always asking ‘How are you?’ They really care. When I was getting off the plane here, nobody asked me how I was doing.”